Preventing groundwater and surface waters pollution in the EU

Clean water is essential for humans and healthy ecosystems. Find out what the EU and the European Parliament are doing to safeguard it.

According to the European Environment Agency, water pollution in the EU decreased between the 1990s and 2010s. However, progress has slowed with pollution in 58% of surface water since 2016. In addition, only 42% of surface water bodies and 77% of groundwater are rated as having "good chemical status".


In line with the European Green Deal's zero pollution ambition, the Commission tabled a proposal in October 2022 to revise the watch lists of surface water and groundwater pollutants to be monitored and controlled to protect freshwater bodies.

In September 2023, Parliament adopted its position on protecting groundwater and surface waters from pollution and improving water quality standards. The new law revises the Water Framework Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (Surface Water Directive). The aim is to better protect human health and natural ecosystems from pollutants.

Definitions

  • Groundwater is found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock (for example artesian wells, artificial wells, springs).
  • Surface water is any body of water above ground, including streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, reservoirs, and creeks

Expanding the water pollutants watch list


MEPs propose that the watch list of pollutants should not be limited to a maximum of substances as proposed by the Commission. They want it to be regularly updated to keep up with new scientific evidence and the fast-evolving pace of emerging new chemicals.


MEPs want a number of substances to be added to the watch list as soon as suitable monitoring methods are identified, including microplastics.


Preventing groundwater pollution


To better protect ground water, MEPs demand that the threshold values - which are quality standards to assess the chemical status - are 10 times lower for groundwater than those for surface water.


They also want a subset of specific per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances to be added to the list of groundwater pollutants, as these substances have been detected at more than 70% of the groundwater measuring points in the EU. MEPs want stricter standards for glyphosate, bisphenol, atrazine, pharmaceuticals and pesticides.


Polluters should pay


The report also says producers of products containing polluting substances should contribute to the monitoring costs.


Urban wastewater treatment


Urban wastewater can be another source of water pollution. Parliament approved in April 2024 new rules to improve the treatment and reuse of wastewater to protect the environment and human health.

Urban wastewater should be better monitored for chemical pollutants, including so-called forever chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances; micro plastics; and pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria.


Producers of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics will be required to finance part of the costs of the additional water treatment.


EU countries will have to put in place water savings and reuse plans to address water scarcity.


Next steps


Talks with national governments on the final form of the legislative text on groundwater and surface water protection can start once the Council has adopted its position.

More articles on what the EU does to tackle pollution

What the EU is doing to reduce air pollution

Plastics in the ocean: the facts, effects and new EU rules